For some reason, I’ve been thinking of my childhood + cars. The Pandemic has made cars little safety zones where you can remove your mask and relax.
I recently started driving one of our vintage MGs around. Although it’s a little convertible, I’m only 5ft tall and can barely reach the pedals without a pillow. This 1978 car reminds me of the cars of my youth, especially when it’s raining and the windows and top have to be up.
This is my childhood car, a blue Plymouth Duster, the legendary only car my mother ever bought new (until just recently). She always said, if she’d known it would be her only ever new car, she’d have kept it longer. She was raised in a home where her father bought a new car every five years, rain or shine.
When the Duster was retired, we had a parade of crappy second or third-hand American two-doored gas guzzlers. I think they only lasted a year or two, and only cost a few hundred dollars. The seat belts were always crap and we didn’t wear them. The triangular windows in the back seat opened back with a lever, and didn’t provide much in the way of ventilation. The back seat was always fumy, and I was always on the verge of puking.
Some had sunroofs, about which my sister and I were thrilled. If they opened at all, they just opened a few inches with a lever (like the rear windows), and inevitably leaked. In my admittedly faulty memory, all our cars were white, one with a black top. Most if not all of them shifted with a lever on the steering column. The gauge lights were green. Sometimes my mother had to turn on the dome light and read the map. The radios always worked, although some of them may have been AM only. Never a tape deck.
All had vinyl seats that heated up to a dangerous degree in summer. We lived near the shore and had to cover the seats with towels so we wouldn’t burn our butts when we got into the car after a long day on the beach. My parents never used the air conditioner because it “wasted gas.” Mom would run it for a few minutes if it was wicked hot, but only enough to cool down the vents.
When we visited our grandmother, we would wear seat belts because her late 1960s green four door (similar to a Dart) car had ones that were a joy to use. They sprung back into their home as if they were brand new, instead of flopping around like the heavy wide ribbons that passed for belts in my parents’ cars. She would take us to McDonald’s for lunch (a rare treat), and we’d go through the car wash, which was very exciting. She kept her car in perfect condition, and I was heartbroken when she “upgraded” to a (new) 1988 Chevy Cavalier, which I inherited in college.
Gas was always full service. Dad would order “$10 worth of regular” and tip the gas jockey. Cars changed from using leaded to unleaded at some point in my childhood, and one had to specify “unleaded” as opposed to “regular.” The pump operator would always check the fluids and wash the windows while filling the tank. Cash was king. Credit cards cost more to use, and I don’t think my parents had them anyway.
We got into an accident when I was 12 or something. The family was together, coming back from some event, in the slow lane as usual, and a drunk driver hit us from behind, passing in the breakdown lane, and fled the scene. Years later she was found guilty and paid up. Our car wound up flipped over on the median strip. None of us had been wearing seat belts, and all were hurt to some degree, but nothing too major. My mom, I believe, got the worst of it, with broken ribs that took a long time to heal. I merely had a sprained arm and had to wear a sling for a few weeks. When we went to see our car at the junkyard to get our stuff out of it, it was a scary, twisted mess, a total loss. Hard to believe we weren’t more hurt.
Several of our friends’ parents drove station wagons. Us kids always sat in “the way back” or “the back back,” where there were no seats. The 70s/80s were a different time. Some of my friends’ had parents who smoked, and they smoked in the cars with the windows up when it was raining. It made me sick to my stomach.
My main memory of being driven around, besides the physical feeling of being nauseated, was coming back from someplace at night, looking out the side window in the rain, watching rain drops slide sideways across the windows, catching the lights from streetlights and houses, falling asleep and getting groggily carried into the house at the end of the journey.